Penske Automotive Group signs deal for Nissan to build bigger version of Smart car

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Penske taps Nissan to build new 4-door Smart

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Michigan — Car dealership chain Penske Automotive Group Inc. has signed a deal for Nissan Motor Co. to build a new four-door version of its Smart line of small cars, as it aims to boost sales of the suffering brand.

The new car, set to go on sale in the fourth quarter of 2011, would expand Smart’s lineup to include a larger five-seat passenger car in addition to the fortwo minicar, Penske said.

Penske began selling Smart cars in the U.S. in 2008. They initially drew praise for their fuel-efficiency and pint-sized appearance, but sales have been disappointing, with fortwo sales down 62 percent this year. The broader auto industry has seen sales jump 10 percent during the same period.

Penske, which distributes Smart cars in the U.S. for Germany’s Daimler AG, is hoping a larger vehicle will help revive the brand.

“The new vehicle will expand Smart USA’s product lineup, offering five-seat capacity while maintaining the core principles of efficiency and conservation,” Smart USA President Jill Lajdziak said in a statement.

Nissan spokesman David Reuter said the new model will be built at a Nissan factory in North America but declined to say which one. Nissan has two factories in the U.S. and two in Mexico.

Penske’s tie-up with an outside car manufacturer is similar to the plans it had for the Saturn brand, which it sought to buy from General Motors Co. last year. Penske wanted to save Saturn by recruiting other automakers to build its funky lineup of cars, but owner Roger Penske failed to get a manufacturer on board. GM wound up shuttering the brand.

Shares of Penske fell 11 cents to $13.24 in midday trading Wednesday.

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